Reprinted with permission from the American Association of University Women
At my predominantly white, parochial high school, there was a running joke among my peers: To determine the number of black students enrolled there, one simply needed to look at the football, basketball and track team yearbook photos. Though stated in jest, this sentiment is the epitome of the one-track narrative that stereotypes and confines African American athletes.
At the same time, African Americans have long used athletics as a form of protest—from silently raising their fists for civil rights on Olympic podiums to calling for equal pay in prize money. Here are three ways we can expand the perception of black Americans in sports and continue celebrating their legacies.
1. Understand that physique alone does not guarantee athletic success.
According to Serena Williams, the number one women’s tennis player in the world, “Tennis is 70 percent mental. I won most of my matches—probably all of my Grand Slams—from upstairs, not anything else,” she says, pointing to her brain. Yet some critics have attributed her success to her muscular physique, trivializing the mental fortitude necessary to endure long training regimens, perform well under pressure and strategize victory.
Williams’ build undoubtedly helps her achieve the agility, flexibility and strength necessary to perform in the same way that Michael Phelps’ body structure helps him swim at record-breaking speeds. But Williams’ excellence, manufactured from both mental and physical power, rebels against ideas that minimize the success of women athletes with bodies that do not meet mainstream definitions of beauty, a practice that disproportionately affects women of color and limits their ability to obtain endorsements.
2. Include and invest in women of color in the sciences.
From designing sports products to building a burgeoning market of smart technology and mobile apps around exercise and athletics, scientists play a powerful role in aiding athletes. AAUW research shows that when women are included in the technical design process behind these products, the devices are better able to meet women-specific needs.
A critical example is prosthetics, which are used to help facilitate rehabilitation, yet are largely based on the bone density and structure of a white male. According to biomedical engineering doctoral scholar Adrienne Williams, a 2015–16 AAUW International Fellow, African American women, who face different health risks than white males, would benefit from a more mindful design of prosthetic limbs.
“Unfortunately, mass production is based on average measurements taken from groups for which data already exists and is readily available and therefore cheaper to obtain,” she says.
This is just one of the many reasons why it’s critical that we work to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields more accessible to women of color.
3. Recognize the many women of color excelling in uncommon positions.
More than half a century before Title IX leveled the playing field for women in sports, Lucy Diggs Slowe, a Howard University student, became the first African American to win a national title when she won the American Tennis Association’s national tournament in 1917. Today, African American women athletes still live in a generation of firsts—from Maritza Correia, who in 2002 became the first African American woman swimmer on the U.S. Olympic team to Nzingha Prescod, an African American who became the first American foil fencer to win a Grand Prix Title in 2013.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the woman behind Beyonce’s “Flawless” definition of a feminist, once said, “The single story creates stereotypes. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Amplifying these women’s stories and others like them is critical—not just for little black girls, who can use them to visualize their dreams, but also for black women, who can be edified by knowing the richness of their history and the diversity of the experiences of women who look like them.